Of the many catchphrases made famous within the WWE Universe, one of the most important for superstars to remember is “don’t cross the boss.” After all, Vince McMahon has long boasted he “has the brass to fire the ass” of any wrestler who dares defy him, regardless of how doing so may impact his long-term business prospects. On the other hand, this statement has proven less than true more than once, with some of McMahon’s employees putting him to the test and living to tell the tale.
In order for wrestlers to stand up to McMahon without getting fired, they need to be pretty darn important to WWE. The lower on the totem pole a given sports entertainer is, the more integral it is he acquiesces immediately to McMahon’s each and every demand. Main event talent, however, are able to push back against the boss’s less agreeable ideas, sometimes rejecting him outright and simply doing as they please instead.
Everyone has their limits, especially controlling maniacs like McMahon, so not everyone who has successfully stood up to him was able to keep the practice going for long. Nine times out of ten, Vince eventually gets fed up with people telling him what to do or even trying to, and he won’t hesitate to fire someone at a moment’s notice should he go through one of his trademark mood swings.
At least for a short while, though, certain superstars have been able to get in his face, tell him off, and do it all over again next week, usually because McMahon was too worried about what they could do elsewhere. Keep reading to learn about 15 wrestlers who stood up to Vince McMahon and kept their jobs.
15 Kofi Kingston
All of the wrestlers on this list got into wars with Vince McMahon, but most of them were content on confining their battles to the verbal variety. Surprisingly, it was the usually fun-loving Kofi Kingston who couldn’t stop himself from resorting to fisticuffs over his disagreement with Vince. Granted, if Chris Jericho is to be believed, McMahon really just wanted Kingston to fight him in the first place, using the incident as a bizarre way of testing his talent. Because Jericho is the source of this story becoming well known, there’s no reason to deny his knowledge of the motives involved, not that it makes things any less strange on paper. In any event, the whole thing started when McMahon dissed Kofi on a flight, leading to a war of words that soon became physical. Keeping in line with how strange it all was, the second Kingston fought back, McMahon immediately laughed off the ordeal like it never happened.
14 John Cena
For over a decade now, John Cena has been the Face of WWE, easily the most famous and recognizable active wrestler working for the company. Given this reputation, if anyone could stand up to Vince and survive the ordeal, Cena is the man for the job. Unfortunately, he almost never finds reason to do so, entirely content to tow the company line rather than try and make things better for everyone. That said, wrestling journalists did report at least one incident circa late 2012 when Cena apparently sat the boss down and had a heartfelt chat about how things were flying off the rails. The story goes Cena pointed out ratings were down, fans were unhappy, and things were only getting worse, and McMahon simply took it all in at face value, never punishing Cena for his words. Of course, the fact nothing really changed makes the whole story a bit dubious, but it’s nice to think Cena actually tried to fix the sinking ship, if only for a brief moment.
13 Shawn Michaels
At one point in time, the relationship between Shawn Michaels and Vince McMahon was so close that certain detractors were spreading rumors the two could be secret lovers. Although that was a pretty ridiculous stretch of the truth, the fact remained that HBK could pretty much do no wrong in the eyes of his boss, and that included telling the man in charge he was wrong on multiple occasions. During Michaels's first run as WWE Champion, he was more or less running the show backstage, telling Vince whom he would and wouldn’t wrestle, and more importantly, picking and choosing the rare people he was willing to lose to. McMahon wanted Michaels to lose the title to Vader at SummerSlam 1996, but Michaels refused entirely, writing his own path from there instead. For whatever reason, McMahon let him, barely even trying to regain control of his top employee.
12 Chris Jericho
In a unique position as a full-time pro wrestler who will occasionally spend a month or two as a part-time rock star, Chris Jericho has more freedom than the average WWE superstar. That Jericho has also been around nearly two decades also provides him with a lot of leeway, which he uses to his advantage whenever Fozzy wants to go on tour, or perhaps, he gets an offer from some non-WWE television network. For example, Jericho once hosted a short-lived game show on ABC, though if it were up to Vince McMahon, the show probably never would've happened. For reasons that remain unknown, McMahon flew off the handle when Jericho broke the news to him, leading to a war of words including the classic “You can’t fire me; I quit!” and even progressing to threats of physical violence (all according to Jericho himself). Also unclear is how the two gradually calmed down and resumed their working relationship from there, but Jericho’s continued presence in WWE post-2010 obviously means they somehow worked things out.
11 Triple H
When a man dates and then marries his boss’s daughter, the situation generally tends to go one of two ways. Either the son-in-law is blindly praised above all other employees, or the son-in-law never quite gets along with the man on top, creating corporate drama for years to come until one side finally gives up. For better or worse, Triple H and Vince McMahon are a bit closer to the first scenario, with Vince entirely pleased with his daughter’s choice of a husband. This doesn’t mean the two get along on absolutely everything, though, and the more power Triple H gets behind the scenes, the more these disagreements are becoming public knowledge. There have been a number of NXT callups Triple H was vocally against, either due to how his trainees were treated after joining WWE or because the move happened too soon in the first place. None of these tiffs have really affected their larger relationship, though, and chances are, the situation will work itself out when Triple H controls the universe, as he has long planned.
10 Mark Henry
Most of the time, wrestlers who get mad at Vince McMahon do so because of the way he’s treating their wrestling character, which could be considered taking things far too seriously. In the case of Mark Henry, however, there’s no way around the fact McMahon was treating him poorly as a human being, playing a “prank” on his employee that would leave even the calmest amongst us pretty darn upset. One night after a SmackDown taping, McMahon sent Henry to the ring for a “main event dark match,” only to then instruct the production room to play random music for no less than 20 minutes while Henry got increasingly annoyed in the ring. When he went to voice his displeasure on the microphone, it was immediately cut. When it was all said and done, Henry was still furious and angrily confronted McMahon backstage asking what the point of all that was. Seeing the Hall of Pain furious and face-to-face, McMahon reportedly wasted no time in backing down and apologizing.
9 “Stone Cold” Steve Austin
For all the attention WWE gave to Steve Austin “taking his ball and going home” in late 2002, the company tends to gloss over the fact this sort of defiant behavior was integral to the Stone Cold character. In and out of the ring, Austin had been challenging Vince McMahon for years before his infamous walkout, up to and including an earlier walkout less than six months earlier that somehow didn’t cost him his job. Before Austin reached a point where he felt words would no longer do, he also had a long history of refusing to work with certain wrestlers, either because he thought they were beneath him and unprepared to reach his level or because, in some cases, he simply didn’t like them. None of this stopped Vince McMahon from promoting Austin as his biggest and most important star for years, of course, as no one else would bring in fans the way he did. This would also explain how even the walkouts were forgotten about in due time, with Austin making plenty of WWE comebacks since then.
8 Mick Foley
At this point, even the Hardcore Legend Mick Foley’s most diehard fans probably have trouble tracking all of his various exits and returns to the WWE Universe. Foley’s time as an active wrestler may have ended decades ago, but he still comes and goes as he pleases, making appearances in WWE rings, the last one as recent as this year. While one might expect this sort of behavior is only acceptable for Vince McMahon’s closest friends, the truth is, Foley and his boss have been growing apart ever since the first time he stepped away from WWE. Though Mick is always welcome to return, their past disagreements have led to a relationship nowhere near as strong as it once was. That said, Foley is nonetheless still able to show up whenever he feels like it, showing McMahon can’t be all that cheesed about his various exits.
7 “Rowdy” Roddy Piper
Just when you think you know the answers, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper comes along and changes the questions, and this can even apply to the Hot Rod’s most powerful boss, Vince McMahon. Truth be told, there’s no exact indication when this story took place, as it comes from Piper’s one-man shows from after he had mostly retired, and he simply said it was “a few years back.” However, also because of the source, we have a pretty specific understanding of how Piper stood up to McMahon in the first place. Always a proud man and not one to let someone else insult him, Piper fired back after McMahon hurt his pride, pointing out Vince was a “failed concert promoter, failed bodybuilding promoter, and failed football promoter,” further mocking that the only thing McMahon actually succeeded at was the company his father gave him. Amazingly, not only did Piper keep his job after the epic tirade, but he maintained his reputation as an all-time great and WWE Hall of Famer.
6 Stephanie McMahon
The last person Vince McMahon expected to ever turn him down was probably the Billion Dollar Princess, daddy’s little girl herself, his daughter, Stephanie McMahon. Of course, had any other father in the history of parenthood heard what it was Vince had asked Stephanie to do, he would call him a borderline psychopath and definitely a pervert. Backing up a bit, this family disagreement occurred during Stephanie’s first pregnancy, when WWE was considering the idea of using her condition in a storyline. Rather than admit her husband, Triple H, was the father, Vince wanted to run a ridiculous angle where it would be revealed that he had fathered his own grandchild. Obviously, Stephanie felt this was insane and shot her father down immediately. She did the same thing when Vince followed up the first idea with a new suggestion that her brother Shane should be the dad. It’s not that surprising Stephanie kept her job despite turning these ideas down, but the real question is, why does she want to keep it?
5 Jesse Ventura
In the modern era, it would be downright laughable to think a mere commentator would be so important to a wrestling company that network executives would count on his appearance. Back in the 1980s, however, Jesse “The Body” Ventura truly possessed that level of star power, and it would ultimately save his job when he and Vince McMahon got into an argument about Ventura’s outside interests. The Body was offered a role in the film Predator and was highly interested in taking it despite McMahon demanding he not do so. Rather than listen to the boss, Ventura quit WWE and left for Hollywood. Now, Ventura quitting the company doesn’t exactly jive with this list’s concept of keeping his job, so how does this one work out? Well, NBC executive Dick Ebersol was a big fan of Ventura to the extent he wouldn’t continue airing Saturday Night’s Main Event without The Body behind the booth. His hands tied, McMahon hired Ventura back, and they kept working together three more years.
4 Rob Van Dam
Since 2003, WWE has made a yearly habit of putting on charity shows called Tribute to the Troops, giving back to American soldiers overseas and on the homeland for the service. Technically speaking, these shows have always been voluntary for the wrestlers to participate in, or at least that’s what McMahon claimed. If it were truly voluntary, Rob Van Dam never would've run into any trouble for refusing to take the trip in 2004. Now, before anyone gets on Van Dam for not wanting to do charity work, keep in mind wrestlers are on the road some 300 days a year, and it was more an issue that he didn’t want to spend his holidays doing even more traveling when he could've been with his family. Initially, Vince was furious and tried to do whatever it took to convince Van Dam he had to go on the trip, but it was all for naught, as the wrestler flat out refused. Not even Vince can fire someone for not doing charity, though, so Van Dam kept his job for the time being.
3 AJ Lee
Technically speaking, AJ Lee never quite stood up to Vince McMahon, but she did something with basically the same ramifications -- she publicly called out his daughter Stephanie on social media. In February 2015, Stephanie tweeted in support of Patricia Arquette using the Oscars to voice her opinion on the women’s right’s movement. AJ fired back with some startling statistics about how women in WWE get treated and paid, questioning how much Stephanie actually cared about the advancement of her gender. While some fans will probably point out AJ left WWE barely a month after making this statement, all sources indicate that was her own choice due to a spinal injury. Chances are, the McMahon family respected her opinion, and they definitely took her words to heart in making a more concerted effort at a Women’s Revolution in the near future.
2 Jim Ross
Arguably the best wrestling play-by-play announcer of his or any generation, Jim Ross was the voice of WWE during the company’s most popular and mainstream era. Bizarrely, the one man who has consistently questioned Good Old JR’s mastery of the art has long been Vince McMahon, who repeatedly did whatever it took to mock, chastise, and generally insult Ross again and again on his television programming. Chances are, McMahon picks on Ross because of disagreements they may have had behind the scenes, where JR also helped out with booking and talent relations. Unlike most others on this list, JR is more tactful when discussing his issues with McMahon, rarely getting into the details. However, anyone who's been fired and rehired as many times as he has obviously has a history of upsetting the people in charge one way or another, and yet JR always finds his way back to the booth in the end on sheer talent alone.
1 Bruno Sammartino
Innovating the very idea of standing up to the boss the same way he revolutionized wrestling, Bruno Sammartino was a trendsetter in every sense of the word. Almost impossibly, it was his decision to stand up to the unscrupulous business practices of Vince McMahon, Sr. that caused him to start his first run working for Vince, Jr.. That’s not entirely the same as the other stories on this list, but we have to give credit to anyone who can sue his way into a full-time job, which is what Sammartino did. Upon learning Vince, Sr. had bilked him on his pay, Sammartino took Vince, Jr. to courts over the matter, ultimately resulting in the color commentary role he provided on WWE television throughout the mid-‘80s. Things between Sammartino and the McMahon family remained tense from there, meaning this job didn’t last long, though he would finally make his way back into the fold as a Hall of Famer in 2013.